“I’m likin’ Pennsylvania Dutch”

Mark L. Louden 

A decade ago, my wife, daughter, and I lived in Freiburg, Germany, for a year. Our daughter, who turned five that year, attended a wonderful preschool there, but had some adjustment problems at first and often cried at drop-off. I would smile, wave good-bye, and tell her I loved her, at first in English, and then, after a few weeks, in German. We soon settled into a comfortable routine, and I continued to say Ich liebe dich to her, until one day the mother of another child turned to me and, with a hint of consternation in her voice, asked me where I was from. When I told her we were American, she said that although she also loved her child, she would never say Ich liebe dich at drop-off. It was too emotional or serious an expression to be used in such an everyday situation, she informed me.

mEven though I felt a bit defensive at the time, I realized that the woman was right, lieben-related words are marked by more linguistic gravitas in German than their love counterparts in English. When McDonald’s introduced their “I’m lovin’ it” branding campaign in 2003, Germans were notably uncomfortable with the sound of Ich liebe es. If they feel awkward telling their children they love them, imagine the problem they would have directing that expression toward burgers and fries. It is no accident that McDonald’s restaurants in all other European countries with linguistic sensibilities similar to those of Germany, including Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries, avoided the problem by simply using the English slogan.

Although Pennsylvania Dutch speakers have essentially been cut off from German-speaking Europe since the eighteenth century, and conversational routines from English have been adopted into their heritage language, many patterns of German speech endure in the varieties spoken by Amish and traditional Mennonites today, including how the verb liewe ‘to love’ and noun Liewi ‘love’ are used. Their meanings are rooted in the Christian notion of agape rather than romantic or even brotherly love. Gott liebt sei Kinner ‘God loves his children’ is perfectly fine, but Plain parents, in speaking of their own children, are more apt to say, Mir gleiche unser Kinner literally ‘We like our children’, using a native German verb, gleiche, that originally meant ‘to resemble’ but under the semantic influence of English now means ‘to like’. Just as the German mom who called me onto the linguistic carpet at my daughter’s preschool, Amish and traditional Mennonite parents do not love their children any less than other parents do. Pennsylvania Dutch speakers, like their distant linguistic cousins in Europe, are simply inclined toward understatement relative to their English-monolingual neighbors.

sis addlich waarm heit

The Plain Anabaptist tendency toward verbal humility is clearly reinforced by a concern to always aim to speak the truth. Expressions such as I’m starving, I died laughing, or even It’s hot outside today that are commonplace in English are all but nonexistent in Pennsylvania Dutch. Acceptable equivalents would be Ich kennt esse ‘I could eat’, Ich hab hatt glacht ‘I laughed hard’, and S’is addlich waarm heit ‘It’s quite warm today’, even if the temperature were well above ninety degrees. The concern with using the adjective hees ‘hot’ in reference to the weather has to do with wanting to avoid a comparison, even unintentionally, between the world and hell. Boiling water or a hot stove can be called hees; in fact, for safety reasons, hot objects must be identified as such (Geb acht, sell is hees! ‘Watch out, that’s hot!’). In such cases, however, there is no risk of making unwanted comparisons.

Exercising verbal caution is reflected in another way that Pennsylvania Dutch is used by Amish and Mennonites, namely with regard to pregnancy. It may come as a surprise that in the language used in communities whose birth rates are between triple and quadruple that of the U.S. general population there is no native word for ‘pregnant’. In the monumental Comprehensive Dictionary of Pennsylvania German compiled by the late C. Richard Beam, there is an entry for schwanger, which is also the German word for ‘pregnant’, yet Beam notes that it is “not used much anymore but up until 1960, it was used.”1 It is probably no coincidence that it was around that time that Plain (sectarian) speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch came to outnumber their “Fancy” (nonsectarian) counterparts, who were more likely to describe pregnant women as schwanger. So what do Amish and Mennonites say? In general, people avoid talking openly about pregnancy, but when they do, the most common expression is an ekschpeckte sei ‘to be expecting’, as in Sie is an ekschpeckte ‘She is expecting’. This is a doubly indirect turn of phrase since it is both a euphemism and a borrowing from English.

Out of curiosity, I consulted the equivalent of Beam’s Comprehensive Dictionary for Palatine German, the Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, which documents the European source dialects of Pennsylvania Dutch. Schwanger is listed, yet with the comment that the word is usually avoided in favor of euphemisms, such as aufgebündelt sein ‘to be bound up’ and die Täsche voll haben ‘to have full pockets’. Intriguingly, the first synonym listed in the dictionary for schwanger is pattersch, a word borrowed from Yiddish that refers to animal pregnancies.2 This is neither humorous nor disrespectful, but similar to the double indirectness involved in the borrowed euphemism an ekschpeckte sei.

The caution surrounding discussions of pregnancy characteristic of the Old Orders is not as common today among younger Central Europeans, however certain traditions connected with pregnancy that distinguish both Germans and Plain people from mainstream Americans endure. The most obvious one is the relative rarity of baby showers in Germany (and many other countries around the world), which are nonexistent in Old Order culture. For traditional Anabaptists, to assume that all will go well with a pregnancy, which is implicit in baby showers, is understood as prideful thinking, a serious transgression from a Christian perspective. Germans, as members of a highly secular culture, are more inclined to view a baby shower as just a “bad omen.” However, in recent years, among younger German women, at least, the baby shower – called a Babyparty in German – has joined McDonald’s, Halloween, and cheerleaders in the array of American popular cultural imports.

Another way that Plain people’s views on events that have not yet occurred are encoded into their Pennsylvania Dutch is in the expression, so mir lewe un’s der Harr sei Wille is ‘if we live and it is the Lord’s will’, a turn of phrase that is certainly not unfamiliar to other Americans, including Johnny Cash in his song If the Good Lord’s Willing (lyrics by Jerry Reed) with its signature line, “If the good Lord’s willing and the creeks don’t rise.” Amish and Mennonites, like their English-monolingual neighbors, cannot avoid planning for the future, but there is always a contingency that is encoded linguistically. Interactions such as this are the norm: Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh? — Ja, sell is was der Plaen is ‘Are you (pl.) figuring on going along to Indiana? – Yes, that’s the plan’.

The fundamental open-endedness of what may lie ahead among traditional Anabaptist speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch makes their use of future tense verb forms interesting. Older varieties of the language, especially those spoken by the historical nonsectarian majority (people of mainly Lutheran and German Reformed background), resembled European German in the lack of a distinct future tense. A simple expression like Ich geh mit (Ich gehe mit in German) could mean either ‘I go along’ in a habitual sense (e.g., every time my friends go to Indiana, I accompany them), ‘I’m going along’ (right now), or ‘I will go along’ (next week). English differs from German in this regard by typically drawing a clear verbal line between present and future time, e.g., I go along vs. I will go along (or I’m going to go along). Modern sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, almost certainly due to the influence of English, has developed two auxiliary (helping) verbs that mark future time (similar to English will/be going to), both of which are derived from metaphoric uses of counting or calculating verbs with reference to future events: zeele or (zelle) from the verb zaehle ‘to count’ and figgere, which is derived from English to figure. The difference between the two is largely regional/generational, with younger Midwestern Amish using figgere more frequently than older Midwesterners or sectarians of any age from a Lancaster-affiliated community.

That a group of speakers who are averse to speaking with certainty about the future would actually develop (albeit unconsciously) dedicated future tense forms is, on the face of it, anomalous. How are zeele and figgere used? In sentences like Sind dihr an figgere mit noch Indiana geh?, when the auxiliary is used in a progressive expression (marked by an), it has the meaning of to intend to (do something). If figgere (or zeele) is used as a normal helping verb, the future becomes more definite: Ich figger noch Indiana geh means ‘I will go to Indiana.’ Such sentences are problematic, as I myself learned many years ago. My first exposure to Pennsylvania Dutch was through Lancaster-affiliated speakers, thus I was unfamiliar with the use of figgere. After moving to Texas and living in an Amish community there, I acquired Midwestern Pennsylvania Dutch. On one occasion, I was discussing plans to drive an Amish couple to Oklahoma and made the mistake of saying Ich figger ken Accident hawwe, by which I meant to say ‘I’m not planning on having an accident’ but was understood by my friends as ‘I won’t have an accident’. The wife immediately corrected me by saying, Du HOFFSCHT, du hoscht ken Accident! ‘You HOPE you don’t have an accident!’

Examples of the acceptable uses of the future tense in Pennsylvania Dutch can be found in Di Heilich Shrift, the Pennsylvania Dutch translation of the Bible, which was completed in 2013. The first instance of a zeele form (spelled zayla) is in Genesis 2:16-17:

Un Gott da Hah hott em mann en gebott gevva un hott ksawt, “Du kansht essa funn awl di baym im goahra; avvah fumm bohm funn di eisicht funn goot un evil solsht du nett essa. Fa im dawk vann du esht difunn zaylsht du gevislich shteahva.”

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (NRSV)

It is, of course, entirely appropriate for God, who has perfect knowledge of what will or could come to pass, to employ a future tense form when quoted in Pennsylvania Dutch.

The status of the future tense in sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch connects to a very interesting area of inquiry linking linguistics with psychology and economics. In general, human languages fall into one of two groups as far distinguishing the present from the future time goes in their grammars. English and sectarian Pennsylvania Dutch, in which there is a clear distinction between the present and the future in the verbal system, are “strong future languages.” German, on the other hand, is a “weak future language” because the difference between the present and the future tenses is blurred.

In 2013, an economist from Yale published the results of a fascinating study that showed a significant correlation between the use of strong future or weak future languages and personal economic and lifestyle behaviors.3 Specifically, speakers of weak future languages like German were more likely to save more of their income, smoke less, and generally maintain their health better than speakers of strong future languages like English. The conclusion that the Yale researcher drew was that speakers of weak future languages, such as Germans, for whom the future is in a real sense “closer” to the present, are more likely to invest, literally, in their futures, than British, Anglo-Canadians, and Americans, who speak a strong future language.

Lest one think that Germans’ overall healthier outlook on their futures might be due to cultural or historical factors independent of the grammar of their language, the Yale researcher looked closely at two European countries in which both strong future and weak future languages are spoken, namely Switzerland and Belgium. He found statistically significant personal economic and lifestyle differences between speakers of German and Flemish Dutch (which is also a weak future language), on the one side, and those who spoke French, Italian, and Romansh, which are strong future languages like English. The German and Flemish speakers saved more and smoked less than their Romance-speaking counterparts, even in the same city, Brussels.

How might the historical development of Pennsylvania Dutch from a weak future language to a strong future language reflect sectarian faith and culture? A major distinctive of Plain thought is the recognition that life in this world is fleeting; traditional Anabaptists hold that eternal life is much more important than worrying about one’s earthly legacy. Plain sectarians’ de-emphasis of materialism, in line with I John 2:15-17, as well as their inclination to be more accepting of death than what is found in mainstream American culture, could well be interpreted as fitting for speakers of a strong future language. The relatively clear distinction between the present and future for sectarians and monolingual English speakers alike may indeed be connected to certain attitudes and behaviors, albeit radically different ones. For Plain Pennsylvania Dutch, the focus is on the one half of the divide – a hoped-for future in heaven – while mainstream Americans are more concerned with the other half, making the most of the here and now.

One of the most astute observers of the relationship between language and worldview was the linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939), who noted, “It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection.”4 Amish and traditional Mennonites have inherited a language with roots in German-speaking Europe, yet use it and have even altered its structure to fit a reality, spiritual and material, rooted in their abiding faith.


  1. Beam, C. Richard and Jennifer L.Trout, The Comprehensive Pennsylvania German Dictionary, Vol. 9: S, Center for Pennsylvania German Studies, 2006, p. 313. 
  2. Christmann, Ernst, Julius Krämer, and Rudolf Post, Pfälzisches Wörterbuch, Franz Steiner Verlag, 1965–1998. (Entry on schwanger accessible here: http://woerterbuchnetz.de/cgi-bin/WBNetz/wbgui_py?sigle=PfWB). 
  3. Chen, M. Keith, “The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets,” American Economic Review 103 (2), April 2013, pp. 690–731. (Accessible here: https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.103.2.690.) 
  4. Sapir, Edward, Culture, Language and Personality, University of California Press, 1958, p. 69. 

Scattered Among Strangers

In the mid-seventeenth century, Dutch Mennonites inquired with increasing persistence into reports of Swiss Reformed governments’ mistreatment of Anabaptists living in their rural territories.1 In response to these expressions of concern, nonconformists in Zurich sought to provide their own testimony of what they had experienced. The primary result of this effort was Jeremias Mangold’s True Report . . . Concerning the Tribulations Which Came Upon Them, a description of the suffering of Anabaptist women and men, and their children, during a campaign of repression instigated by the city’s council in 1635.2 “It is not possible with a few words to tell of the great tribulation and cruelty which came upon us, as well as our wives, children, the aged, the sick, those with child, and those nursing—how they dealt with us poor subjects so harshly, inhumanely, and mercilessly,” Mangold wrote.3 Despite a recognition of the limited capacity of language to capture the breadth of their hardships, community members had contributed to a “short, simple, sure, and true account” of what had occurred. As the text revealed, the detention of Anabaptists and their separation from their children stood at the center of nonconformists’ understanding of the source of their suffering.

Oetenbach_Image

Detail from Jos Murer’s woodcut Der uralten wytbekannten Statt Zurych gestalt und gelaegenhait… (Zurich, 1576) depicting the Oetenbach cloister, which lay just inside the city’s walls. By the 1630s, the city’s council had converted the complex into an orphanage, workhouse, and prison and used it to incarcerate scores of Anabaptist women and men who lived in the surrounding countryside.

For a period of more than a century after the city’s reformation, Zurich’s government had sought to achieve uniformity of religious belief and practice in the territory under its control. The authorities had employed a variety of means, including social exclusion, financial penalties, and control of physical mobility, to compel Anabaptist conformity. Yet, despite the existence of a stable legal framework under which nonconformists could be prosecuted, officials had not implemented penalties systematically. Exemplary punishment of male Anabaptist leaders achieved only short-lived successes. Nonconformists continued to threaten the unity and health of the sacred society which authorities believed they had been ordained to institute and protect.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the council extended the scope of its repression. Frustrated by Anabaptists’ ongoing unwillingness to agree to their basic demand to either conform or leave, the authorities decided to incarcerate both nonconformist men and women in large numbers and to relocate their children, now separated from their parents, into Reformed households throughout the region. In the eyes of the authorities, given the failure of previous initiatives to address Anabaptists’ intransigence, this tactic was a lamentable but necessary means to achieve what they deemed a public good, the elimination of Anabaptist religious culture and the removal of nonconformists from the social body. “But as long as the Anabaptists . . . neither want to move away, nor be obedient, is not an Honorable Government compelled to take such a disobedient people into civil custody?” they asked.4

Thus, the breaking up of Anabaptist families became routine. Reports of family separation punctuate the True Report’s biographical vignettes which relate the details of each Anabaptist family’s experience. When Rudolph Hägi and his wife were detained in the orphanage-cum-prison of Oetenbach—Hägi for a period of eighty-three weeks–their five children were “scattered . . . from house and home among strangers.”5 The children of Adelheid Egli, the daughter-in-law of the martyred Anabaptist Hans Landis, suffered a similar fate during the nearly four years she survived in confinement.6 Anabaptist parents who agreed to leave the territory in exchange for their freedom later returned, incurring significant personal risk to find their daughters and sons. Mangold, describing the actions of the expelled Anabaptist Jacob Gochnauer, reported that “when he came into the area again to search for his scattered children, he walked into the hands of the enemies on the street, and they took him prisoner.”7

Evidence of family separation also appears in the city’s archived financial records. When Anna Peter and her husband Hans Müller, a miller from the small rural settlement of Edickon and an Anabaptist deacon, were imprisoned in Oetenbach for more than a year, their nine-year-old twins and three-year-old son were handed over to Müller’s Reformed brother, while their eighteen-month-old daughter was placed in the home of Müller’s Reformed brother-in-law, an official with policing functions in a nearby village government. The authorities mandated that these children be billeted and supervised without any support from the common funds.8

Members of local Anabaptist communities, who had survived in hostile conditions for decades, recognized that the breaking up of families represented a departure from a previous punitive regime. They lamented this punishment over any other. In addition to concern about the physical well-being of children–who were now “buffeted about among strangers, looked down upon, scolded, and mocked”—Anabaptists also harbored fears about the long-term consequences of their children’s separation from “fatherly and motherly care.”9 Who would supply their children’s needs and with what intentions? Who would protect them as they matured? Who would care for their spiritual well-being? Who would they become? How these questions would be answered had grave implications for the maintenance of fragile community life.

If anything, the authorities believed that separating children from their Anabaptist parents would improve their lot; integrated into the life of the Reformed parish, children stood a chance at social and spiritual restoration.10 Yet, this remained the secondary benefit of a coercive program with a more important objective. By exerting intolerable pressure on Anabaptist parents, the breaking up of families forced them to choose between conformity or exit. This practice helped authorities articulate a basic message: “We do not want you here, at least not as you are.” Within a few years after the implementation of this program, there was no longer an Anabaptist presence in Zurich. The government’s project of religious and cultural purification found success.

 


  1. Translated editions of many of the records produced by these inquiries and the efforts of mutual aid that followed are found in Documents of Brotherly Love: Dutch Mennonite Aid to Swiss Anabaptists, Volume I, 1635- 1709, trans. James W. Lowry, ed. David J. Rempel Smucker and John L. Ruth (Millersburg, Oh.: Ohio Amish Library, 2007), and Letters on Toleration: Dutch Aid to Persecuted Swiss and Palatine Mennonites, 1615-1699, ed. and trans. Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs (Rockport, Maine: Picton, 2004). 
  2. All subsequent passages cited from this work, originally titled “Ein Warhafftiger Bericht, Von den Brüdern im Schweitzerland, in dem Zürcher Gebiet, Wegen der Trübsalen welche über sie ergangen seyn, um des Evangeliums willen; Von dem 1635sten bis in das 1645ste Jahr,” are taken from Lowry’s full translation in Documents, 24-83. On the attribution of authorship of this manuscript to Mangold, see Documents, 25n1. 
  3.  Documents, 27. 
  4. Johann Heinrich Ott to Isaac Hattavier (July 1645), translated in Documents, 103. Here, Ott, a Reformed minister defending the Zurich government’s actions to Hattavier, a merchant representing the interests of Dutch Mennonites, paraphrased an anti-Anabaptist tract known as the Manifest, published and disseminated by the city council in 1639. The original passage is found in Täufer und Reformierte im Disput: Texte des 17. Jahrhunderts über Verfolgung und Toleranz aus Zürich und Amsterdam, ed. Philip Wälchli, Urs Leu, and Christian Scheidegger (Zug: Achius, 2010), 104. 
  5.  Documents, 43. 
  6.  Documents, 61. 
  7.  Documents, 73. 
  8. Staatsarchiv Zürich, F I 190, 253. There is no mention of the removal of Peter and Müller’s children in the True Report. 
  9.  Documents, 81-83. 
  10. Reformed authorities considered children’s attendance at regular catechetical classes in the parish church an essential step in young people’s spiritual formation. Anabaptist parents regularly impeded their children from attending Reformed religious instruction. 

The Mausts at Stone Mountain

Over the last year, as my grandmother, Evelyn Brunk Maust, neared the end of her life and then passed away, I started looking at family pictures. At Christmas, I looked through scrapbooks as she slept in her chair. In May, as we prepared to bury her, we looked through many more. And last week, as most of the family gathered at a beach house for a vacation, we looked at a couple hundred slides.

Petrified_Forest[1]

Evelyn, Dennis, and Robert Maust pose in the Petrified Forest National Park.

David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig included looking at family photos as one way of engaging with the past in their landmark study The Presence of the Past, and now I understand why. I was able to see past editions of these people I love, versions I will never meet. I was able to catch glimpses of their world: to see how my grandparents’ house evolved and how the neighboring campus of Eastern Mennonite University has changed and remained constant.

There were flashes of the present too. Nearly every photo of my dad and my uncle was accompanied by an outburst of “He looks like [my cousin/me/my cousin’s children]!” The boys in the slides, now in their seventh decade of life, retained fresh memories too: of people, places, and sartorial choices.

IMG-3213 (1)

I believe those folks facing the camera are members of the Brunk family. Photo by unknown photographer, circa 1940.

Because of my interest in public history, I paid special attention to the photos of relatives at historic sites. In the scrapbook, for instance, I found a photo of my grandmother’s family visiting Mount Vernon. In the slideshow, there were many more history sites.

When my father was a boy, his family spent many of their summers in Pigeon, Michigan, with his father Earl’s extended family. Several summers, however, they embarked on massive road trips. On these odysseys, the Mausts made stops at various national parks and tourist attractions.

Ship[1]

Dennis and Robert Maust in front of one of the ships they visited.

Historic ships have their own special appeal, and the Maust family visited at least two of them. They visited Plymouth Rock too. The rock, inscribed with the year “1620,” was identified as the landing place of the first Pilgrim immigrants by a ninety-five year-old man in 1741 and moved multiple times over the last centuries.1

Indian[1]

An unnamed interpreter in American Indian dress poses for a photo, location and date unknown.

The western trips included stops at the St. Louis Arch, giant redwoods, at least one spot that had a person in American Indian ceremonial costume, and Mount Rushmore. Perhaps more surprisingly, on a trip through Georgia, the Mausts visited Stone Mountain. Their visit was probably soon after the site—which features carvings of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson—opened to the public as a state park on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

General_Sherman[1]

Dennis, Earl, and RobertMaust sit in front of the tree named “General Sherman” in Sequoia National Park.

What were the lessons at all of these sites in the 1960s? Despite Denise Meringolo’s uncovering of radical precedents of public history, the historic sites and monuments of the mid-twentieth century were overwhelmingly nationalistic and concerned with privileged Americans. Many of these sites, both private and public, explicitly aimed to teach visitors how to be American; that is, how to assimilate to a specific strand of American culture. House museums and period rooms, for instance, were used to display idealized American homes and teach the values which informed the décor choices.

The sites visited by my family probably saw themselves fulfilling the same purpose to varying degrees. The messages at historic ships and Plymouth Rock likely centered around eighteenth century European immigration. Across the American west, history sites largely told the story of Manifest Destiny. Did the Mausts hear anything about the “Six Grandfathers” on the South Dakotan mountain which were replaced by four white presidents? Surely the word “genocide” did not appear on any plaques or on any tour guide’s tongue.

Mt._Rushmore[1]

A Maust photo of Mount Rushmore, undated.

Evelyn and Earl Maust were mainstream Mennonites for their time. Earl achieved several degrees in music and education and Evelyn was a nurse. Earl served in Puerto Rico in Civilian Public Service. Together they had traveled through Europe. So what did they take away from any of these places? Did they feel patriotic fervor at Mount Rushmore? Or alienation? Did they feel American? Did they settle for awe at the size and and skill evident in the carving?

Perhaps more intriguingly, what did they take away from Stone Mountain? To what extent had the nurse from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the choral director from Pigeon, Michigan, internalized the Lost Cause narrative? Did they know that Stone Mountain was the site of the re-founding of the KKK in 1915? Earl participated in a march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Nashville just a few years before. How do we square these events in one family’s life? What was the Mausts’ racial consciousness in the mid 1960s? Were Earl and Evelyn just attracted by the novelty of the new state park?

Stone_Mt[1]

Dennis and Robert Maust pose in front of Stone Mountain.

These are questions I suspect I’ll never have answers to. My grandmother left behind some diaries and correspondence which might shed light on her tourist experience, but knowing her, any observations would likely be enigmatic and brief. My grandfather, who passed away fifty years ago this fall, left these slides and little else, I think.

Why do I pose these questions? By the late 1960s, over a million and a half Americans visited Mount Rushmore each year. I suspect that the Mausts were not the only Mennonites among that number. Considering how Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups engaged with American public history sites at the high tide of their nationalist focus could provide an important data point in the story of twentieth century Anabaptist life and these communities’ relationship with the state. Perhaps more importantly, considering Anabaptist reactions to sites such as Mount Rushmore and Stone Mountain which directly or indirectly commemorate white supremacy and genocide might provide important context for those working to dismantle racial injustice in the present. For those of my parents’ generation, understanding their parents’ engagement or disassociation with mainstream American culture through this lens might be enlightening as they consider their own identity as American Anabaptists.

What messages conveyed by these sites were comfortable to mid-century Anabaptists? Which ones were uncomfortable? Even glimpses into the answers to these questions might be illuminating as contemporary Anabaptists confront an uncomfortable present.

Special thanks to Robert Maust for digitizing these slides on short notice. 

 


  1. James Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth: From Its First Settlement in 1620 to the Year 1832 (Boston: Marsh, Capen & Lyon, 1832), 29-30: http://books.google.com/books?id=IWWLjiaEs2AC. Also, here’s a great home video of Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock ca. 1960: https://vimeo.com/32595596. 

A Train Wreck and a Hair Picture

It’s a well-known story.

It was July 25, 1896, and there had been a party at the home of John Musser in Witmer, Pennsylvania, and many young Mennonites had gathered to socialize, perhaps discussing the quarterly mission meeting that had been held a few days earlier, perhaps not. Some time before midnight the party broke up, and everybody went their separate ways.1

Three buggies went together down Old Philadelphia Pike, now Route 340, towards Bird-in-Hand. Chatting from carriage to carriage, they did not hear the east bound train approaching at the Bird-in-Hand curve—not a regularly scheduled train, but a special service, carrying militia troops home from an encampment.

“At the Bird it happened,” wrote Jakob M. Barge, recounting the incident to a son who had moved west. The first buggy, carrying Amos Landis and his girlfriend barely made it across, but the second, carrying Jakob’s son Enos, and Barbara Hershey, stopped on the tracks, horse rearing. “Enos was struck by an engine, his horse killed, his lady friend [Barbara Hershey] was killed and he has lost his right arm.” Jakob did not mention that Enos had been found thirty feet from his right arm. The next day, Enos would succumb to his wounds and die in the Lancaster hospital.2

This event is usually remembered for its tremendous impact on the young people of Lancaster Conference. Barbara Hershey’s funeral possession had three hundred carriages. At Enos Barge’s funeral, more than a thousand vehicles arrived at Strasburg for the funeral, three times the capacity of the meetinghouse.

Amos D. Wenger, already in Lancaster County at the time, was leading almost-but-not-quite-revival meetings that gained greater attention and following after the accident. Young people started to look at baptism and joining the church at a younger age—as opposed to waiting for marriage. Indeed, baptismal classes were larger than normal that summer, with about five hundred young people becoming church members. The impact of this was felt long through the conference on the account of the energy the young people brought in.

IMG_20180621_084543

“Hair Picture,” in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler.

But there is also a perhaps less important impact of this story. In 1882, Sarah Lucinda Hershey made a hair picture of herself and her siblings—including Barbara Hershey. It is a fascinating thing—a punch card background, neatly framed in wood with the first initial carefully stitched below each of the thirteen locks of hair. Each lock of hair, some braided, others loosely gathered, is neatly bundled with ribbon. In the middle, “A Token of Love” with cross-stitched flowers with silk other and feathers as finishing touches. The piece came to the Society’s collection through a non-Mennonite antique dealer, and little is known during the time period between its construction and its purchase by the Society.3

I am looking for other similar hair memorials, in any form, that have Mennonite connections to provide comparative analysis. If you know of one, please connect with me through the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.


  1. This telling of the story is based on the account in John L. Ruth, The Earth is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2001), 726-727. 
  2. Jakob M. Barge to Frank Barge, July 26, 1896, in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler in the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Museum, Lancaster, Pa. 
  3. “Hair Picture,” in Decorated and Plain: A Mennonite and Amish Sampler

Five Myths about Mennonites and the Holocaust

“Not all the Jews were bad,” a widely respected Mennonite born in interwar Ukraine told me recently, “even though they started the [Bolshevik] Revolution. My father had good Jewish friends.” This statement is classically anti-Semitic. It falsely conflates communism with Judaism, while using the excuse of having a few Jewish friends to mask an implied belief that Jews in general were bad. At least as importantly, my conversation partner’s words reveal how people who do not consider themselves racist or anti-Semitic can still propagate harmful myths.

New scholarship and ongoing public discussion about the historic entanglement of tens of thousands of Mennonites on three continents with Nazism and the Holocaust during the 1930s and 1940s has yielded productive conversation regarding how present-day Anabaptists can and should respond to this history, as well as calls for further discussion. At the same time, some church-affiliated periodicals have printed articles, letters, and reviews that propagate troubling interpretations of Mennonite-Nazi connections, including anti-Semitic tropes.

Figure 1, Great Trek

Imagery of the “Great Trek” during WWII has dominated Mennonite depictions of the era, bolstering a narrative of suffering, mostly female refugees. In fact, the word “trek” was widely and triumphally used in the Third Reich to describe German-speakers relocating from Eastern Europe to Germany. This particular movement of Mennonites and others out of Ukraine in 1943 and 1944 was overseen by the SS. Participants were not primarily considered to be refugees but rather Aryan “re-settlers,” traveling to a fatherland newly cleansed of Jews. Credit: Mennonite Archives of Ontario, attributed to Hermann Rossner.

Such reactionary responses are not exceptional, either in Holocaust historiography or in the current context of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. In February, Poland passed legislation criminalizing mention of some Poles’ involvement in genocide, while part of the international backlash to Israeli violence has been couched in anti-Semitic terms. When certain Mennonites voice anti-Semitic sentiments, this often reflects—as is the case of other groups—both an attempt to protect their own and also a real, dangerous current of anti-Jewish prejudice.

The following five myths date to the Third Reich or its immediate aftermath. They remain in circulation, deployed today to excuse Mennonite involvement in Nazism or to foreclose public discussion. Examples given below all appeared in Mennonite periodicals within the past two years. Since my intention is to stimulate thoughtful reflection, not to shame individuals, I have chosen not to cite most quotations. However, all are easily accessible online and in print.

Myth #1: Mennonites suffered under Bolshevism, justifying Nazi collaboration.

This is the most typical excuse for Mennonite involvement for Nazism. The trope holds that life in the Soviet Union was so brutal, Mennonites had no choice but to embrace Hitler’s crusade. In fact, most Mennonites involved with the Third Reich had never lived in the USSR. The subset who did—approximately 35,000 individuals in Ukraine—came under Nazi occupation in 1941. Like millions of other Soviet citizens, most of these Mennonites welcomed Hitler’s armies as “liberators” from hardship and repression. Yet unlike the majority of their neighbors, Mennonites were generally considered Aryan, a status that provided additional incentives to support Nazism.

This trope is often accompanied by assertions that Mennonite suffering under communism has not been properly recognized. But in reality, Mennonite authors have been publicizing Soviet atrocities without abate since the Bolshevik Revolution. Scholarly literature and memoirs on Mennonite victimhood greatly outnumber texts that explore collaboration or perpetration. Nearly all of the latter have appeared only recently. The imbalance is so stark that Mennonite historians can claim to have created an entire subgenre on the “Soviet Inferno,” a term in academic use since the 1990s and whose deployment continues to refer almost exclusively to Mennonites.

Myth #2:  The Allied powers committed atrocities, too – why should we single out Nazism?

“The Nazis were bad, but the Bolsheviks were worse,” a Mennonite born in the USSR told me in March. “You mean from a Mennonite perspective,” I said. My conversation partner shrugged. “Of course.” When white Mennonites think about what life might have been like for them if they had lived in Hitler’s Germany, they invariably assume that they would have been Mennonite—and by extension Aryan. From such a viewpoint, each of the Allied powers, not just the Soviet Union, would have posed a greater threat to life and livelihood than Nazism. In other words, assuming one would have been Aryan creates a false equivalency that downplays genocide.

Studying the Holocaust from a Mennonite-centric perspective runs the added risk of repeating debunked Nazi propaganda, such as the myth that Bolshevism was Jewish. Some invocations of a “Soviet Inferno” falsely imply systematic persecution or even a “final solution” of Mennonites (by Jews) in the USSR. Nazi perpetrators commonly used such reversals to portray themselves as the true victims. Last year, one historian explained Mennonite participation in Nazi death squads, stating: “men and women of Jewish background worked as [Soviet] administrators, agents, and interrogators.” He had previously directed me to a webpage entitled “Jewish Mass Murderers.”

Myth #3: Mennonites were mostly women and children, so they either had no choice or could not have been involved.

Women and children are often invoked to claim Mennonite innocence in Nazi war making. One writer recently claimed, for example: “in the 1930s most Mennonite men [in the USSR] had been exiled, imprisoned or executed, leaving families to be led by mothers and grandmothers,” who were not “collaborators, anti-Semites or Aryan.” Mennonites in Nazi-occupied Ukraine were indeed disproportionately women and children. But there were also plenty of men—many of whom served in administrative positions, as translators, policemen, or soldiers. Gender disparity at the end of the war in part reflected the death or capture of Mennonite men in German uniform.

Figure 2, Chortitza table

A table compiled by Nazi occupiers showing the age and gender (men on the left, women on the right) of the 13,000 “ethnic Germans” in Ukraine’s Chortitza colony, ca. 1942. Forty-three percent of “ethnic German” families in Chortitza had no male head of household—but fifty-seven percent did. Source: Karl Stumpp, Bericht über das Gebiet Chortitza im Generalbezirk Dnjepropetrowsk (Berlin: Publikationsstelle Ost, 1943), Tafel H.

This myth further assumes that women or children could not have contributed to Nazism or the Holocaust. However, many Mennonite women served as translators or in bureaucratic capacities, sometimes enriching themselves with the spoils of genocide. More often, women supplied moral support to male relatives and contributed to the war effort through their labor. Meanwhile, some underage boys took up arms. And most Mennonite children in the Third Reich absorbed Nazi ideals at school and through organized youth activities. They helped boost morale by singing, marching, and telling stories. Some racist proclivities learned in the 1930s and 1940s persist today.

Myth #4: Mennonites knew nothing about Holocaust-related atrocities.

This is simply untrue, as numerous archival documents testify. Nonetheless, the way this myth is told is itself revealing. Consider one statement: “Although Mennonites under German occupation witnessed how their Jewish neighbours packed up and fled, they did not know about the outcome of this fleeing until much later.” Another, strikingly similar account holds that Mennonites “saw their Jewish neighbours pack up and flee eastward across the Dnepr; how many survived and how many were executed on the eastern side they did not know until later.” These authors care more about locating killing elsewhere than considering why Mennonites stayed as Jews fled.

Figure 3, Molotschna

A caption in one Mennonite history book for this scene from the Molotschna colony in Ukraine, 1942, reads: “This photo shows the uneasy meeting of two branches of the German and Low German cultures: the militarism of Prussia as well as of the Third Reich, and its opposite—the nonresistance of the Mennonite religious culture. The worldwide German culture is much richer given the existence of a community that did not soil itself with the militarist Nazi madness.” In fact, the men pictured here belonged to Waffen-SS cavalry units composed mostly of Mennonites. The photo was taken at a rally where Mennonite women and children performed for the visiting head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. Source: Adina Reger and Delbert Plett, eds., Diese Steine: Die Russlandmennoniten (Steinbach, MB: Crossway Publications, 2001), 332.

To suggest that murder did not occur around some Mennonite settlements or that Mennonites in these areas had no knowledge of genocide is a form of Holocaust denial. Such myths repudiate known facts. Yet claims persist that Mennonites “had not heard of Aryanism and other racial theories until well after the conclusion of the war.” The author of this line, in subsequent postal correspondence, described glowingly her own wartime work as the secretary for a top German officer in Nazi-occupied Dnipropetrovsk, her receipt of German citizenship, and the voluntary induction of Mennonite men into the military; “I am a beneficiary of the German occupation!”

Myth #5: Mennonites suffered under Nazism.

Among the most disingenuous myths about Mennonite life under Nazism, this trope holds that the general suffering of Mennonites in the USSR continued under German rule. Nazi occupation was indeed catastrophic for a minority of Mennonites who were committed communists, as well as for disabled individuals and those of Jewish heritage. Some in Nazi-occupied France and the Netherlands joined the resistance or hid Jews. Yet claims of Mennonite suffering normally refer to those who in 1943 and 1944 participated in the “Great Trek” from Ukraine to Poland to escape the Red Army—an endeavor supervised by the SS and praised by Mennonite leaders at the time.

Indeed, closer inspection reveals that allegations of Mennonite hardship are often complaints that Nazism did not live up to its potential. If only the Eastern Front had held; if only religious reform had been more thorough; if only welfare programs were more generous—then Mennonite life would have been easier. Even the Holocaust and other persecutions are said to have “occasioned much disappointment among Mennonites.” This may be true. But note how the author chooses to emphasize the “disappointment” of Aryans, not the actual enslavement and slaughter of Jews. Despite the fading of his own initial “euphoria” for Germany, he could remain “deeply grateful.”

* * *

Mennonite authors and editors should think carefully before writing or printing pieces about the Third Reich. This is an important topic and requires our attention. But we must approach it in ways that do not recapitulate racism. Even those of us with good intentions need to be wary. In April, the cover story of a major denominational magazine laudably covered Mennonites and the Holocaust; yet in her introduction, the editor blithely compared Mennonites murdering Jews to Jews murdering Jesus—arguably the single most injurious trope of Christian anti-Semitism. Proofreaders apparently saw no problem with invoking “the crowd that yelled ‘Crucify him!’”

A few rules of thumb might be helpful. If you are discussing Nazism or the Holocaust, consider how someone from a different background might react—particularly if you are defending actions by your own group. Second, be aware of contextual differences: refocusing from the Holocaust to Soviet atrocities erases the specificity of Jewish genocide. Finally, when evaluating suffering, do not discriminate. While Mennonites have faced many difficulties, they never suffered alone. Nor were they always victims. Anabaptists, of all people, must surely grasp that violence can permeate even the most peaceable of cultures, a process we should understand but never justify.

Ben Goossen is a historian at Harvard University. He is the author of Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

A Reader’s Reward

IMG_20180601_130550089_HDRA sampling of prize books housed in the Menno Simons Historical Library at EMU

 

The beauty of old and rare books is that through studying some of them we can learn not just about the ideas of the writer, but also the life of their reader.

We are fortunate in the Menno Simons Historical Library to have some rare books that give us an insight into the work of Dutch Mennonites in the eighteenth century. These books were given as prizes to children who did well in their catechism classes. The prize encouraged children to learn scripture and the books that were given taught them about the faith of the Mennonite church. Topics ranged from martyr books to histories of the Bible and Mennonite doctrine. We have at least eight examples of prize books in our collection, and I will highlight a few here.

The first is a book of Mennonite history and doctrine by Galenus Abrahamsz de Haan given to Jacob Beukenberg, an orphan living in the Weehuis in Amsterdam, on April 23, 1710.

IMG_20180601_130743832

Another is an emblem book of poems, scripture, and illustrations given to Gerardus de Wind on the 22nd of April 1753.

IMG_20180601_130729839

The third is and final one I will highlight is a small book of martyr stories by Thielman van Braght (best known as compiler and author of the Martyrs Mirror) presented to Pieter Corver on the 26th of February 1774.
IMG_20180601_130632141_HDR

Keith Sprunger, emeritus professor of history at Bethel College, studied these books twenty years ago during a research trip to the Menno Simons Historical Library. He notes that “the provider of the books was usually a church member who was a printer or ran a book store”1. Many Dutch Mennonites had warmly embraced this new printing technology, with some becoming quite rich from the enterprise. Sprunger writes that “This era was . . . the heroic age of Dutch Mennonite printing” and that “the Mennonite churches made great use of the printed word for advancing their religion”2.

Is the printed word still valued by Mennonites? The existence of Herald Press, MennoMedia, and the various Mennonite libraries and archives scattered around North America are hopeful indicators to me that as Mennonites we still make great use of the printed word to transmit our faith, heritage, and the good news of Jesus to the next generation. Many congregations today maintain traditions of giving their young people Bibles or books when they are baptized or reach other milestones.

But the news is full of stories of traditional forms of media struggling to maintain viability in the face of a population becoming ever-more reliant on instant access via the internet, social media, and smartphones. And while I believe technology is a fantastic tool to meet many communication and learning needs, it is clear that when it comes to leaving a long-term record it is not as enduring or reliable as print media. The prize books I mentioned above have been preserved in their original form for nearly three hundred years; computers from twenty years ago have long been relegated to the trash heap. Just as technology has enabled us to preserve through digitization and increase access through web content, it also presents major problems of preservation and access of records based in formats that are now obsolete. 

While it is tempting to continue chasing the new and best technology trends, I think it is wise to take a step back and consider how we can also continue to support and use print resources to leave a record and transmit our traditions to future generations of believers. There is value in possessing tangible resources that we can peruse and return to years later without worrying about data migration, file format compatibility, and URL stability. The young people who received these books appreciated them as the prize they were and we would do well to remember in our ever-changing and fast-paced world that there are still many rewards to be found between the covers of a good book.

Sources:
Sprunger, Keith L. 1999. Mennonitism in print : EMU and the history of Dutch Mennonite printing. n.p.: [1999]., 1999. Menno Simons Historical Library Vertical File.


  1. Sprunger, 17. 
  2. Sprunger, 13. 

When Master’s Theses Go Bad: Thoughts on Mennonite Exceptionalism and Self-Revisionism

A few years back, when I was a young PhD student, I went to one of my professors for advice. How could I turn some of my languishing seminar papers into publications? Particularly papers on Mennonites? My professor, himself a well-known historian of immigration and Jewish life, gave me this advice: when dealing with ethnic groups or subcultures you can emphasize difference from mainstream society or you can place them in the larger American story. He preferred the latter approach.

This advice percolated in my brain for a few years. It eventually helped me re-examine an earlier master’s thesis on Mennonite involvement in the antiwar movement during Vietnam. I had gone the route of emphasizing difference, rather than a story within a story, and in doing so I had missed something important– both about Mennonites and about the antiwar movement.

The thesis title, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” symbolizes my approach. To quote from the thesis intro (italics not in the original):

The church issues in the 1960s were complex. There was debate on the issues of war, peace, and church-state relationships, a debate that would surround those Mennonites who engaged in antiwar activities. These Mennonites did share characteristics of the larger antiwar movement but, at heart, they cannot be described as a microcosm of that group. Instead, they are best understood within the context of their specific religious community.

Mennonites were a part of the national antiwar movement but they were also a part of a specific ethno-religious community. Some embraced this community, some challenged it, but overall, Mennonite activists engaged with it. Their opposition to the war, therefore, was a form of speaking to the United States government but also to their own community.1

Part of this thesis is fine. Mennonites who protested the Vietnam War did speak to both government and their own community. But this does not mean that Mennonites are best understood apart from the rest of the antiwar movement.

My thesis had focused on Eastern Mennonite College (now University) and Goshen College antiwar activity. I found examples of antiwar students who were hesitant to identify too closely with the larger antiwar movement. One EMC student wrote about attending a 1969 peace march in Washington, D.C. and explained that he felt “out of place” until the EMC group found other Mennonites at the rally. They linked arms, “mainly to let those who saw us know we had a unique reason for marching.”2 Others showed similar sentiment discussing draft resistance. Some antiwar students supported those who refused to cooperate with the Selective Service System but hesitated about secular draft resisters and a praised Mennonite draft resisters as different. A Goshen College student compared draft resisters to a “tornado” while claiming conscientious objectors had “stable, religious grounds” for their refusal to participate in war. Another Goshen student also criticized non-Mennonite draft resisters, calling them “starry-eyed” and vague. However, he agreed with them on the “terrible injustice of war.”3

Comments like these lead me to the conclusion that many Mennonites who protested the war saw themselves as doves of a different feather—in, but not of, the antiwar movement. But I was too quick to take the students at their own word. More than a decade later, much more fully immersed in the history of the antiwar movement, I see things differently (for more on my work on the 1960s—unrelated to Mennonite history—see here).

Considering the antiwar movement in all its diversity, Mennonite students appear more typical than not of peace activists. In the words of historian Charles DeBenedetti, the antiwar movement was “local and ephemeral.”4 Although images of student radicalism and confrontation dominated news coverage, recent scholarship has stressed the diversity of antiwar activists. Whether they acted as mothers, religious figures, or members of ethnic groups, activists nationwide often filtered their antiwar activism through local concerns or specific group identities. This is precisely what gave the movement its broad power—and its struggles with strategy and unity.5 The movement was filled with doves of different feathers. Mennonite activists were not so exceptional in this. Furthermore, some activists’ suspicions about the broader movement reflect key ways in which Mennonites were not unique from their non-Mennonite neighbors.

Sociologist Todd Gitlin has demonstrated that media coverage of antiwar protest was deeply problematic. Reporters depicted the movement as potentially subversive or, paradoxically, ineffective and trivial. Journalists privileged stories with conflict and violence, often focusing on action above ideas and issues. Gitlin argues this encouraged activists to plan ever more dramatic protests and meant that protests that did not involve confrontation failed to reach the eyes of many Americans.6 Gitlin does not blame media coverage for the antiwar movement’s image problems. The movement, he argues, made several of its own mistakes. However, he illustrates some of the very real limitations set up by this coverage.7

The Mennonite student activists who were wary of the larger movement show how much impact media could have, even on those critical of the war. These students defined themselves apart from the movement, perhaps because they did not recognize their own preferred methods of nonviolence and moderation as truly belonging to the movement. And yet, Mennonite students were hardly alone in their preference for a firmly nonviolent movement over the highly visible, but not universally embraced, turn to confrontation that came at the end of the 1960s.8

Mennonites were also not unique in a desire to relate antiwar activism to one’s home community. Historian Lorena Oropeza has described the way Mexican-Americans’ antiwar views became intertwined with the growing Chicano movement. Chicano antiwar leaders valued having their own organizations, separate from the rest of the antiwar movement. They worked with the broader movement but they also wanted space where the concerns and voices of their own community could flourish.9 Likewise, African Americans critiqued the war, arguing that African American men were more likely to be drafted and arguing that they should not have to fight abroad for a nation that denied them equal rights at home. Historian Simon Hall has noted a paradox: that African Americans were the group in America most critical of the war and yet largely absent from the antiwar movement, at least at a grassroots level.10

Many African Americans feared that joining forces with the peace movement would blunt their analysis of the way racial issues at home related to the war abroad. Some African Americans called for a black-led antiwar organization, as a way to take part in the movement without fear of being engulfed by it, but this never materialized. African Americans may not have joined antiwar organizations or events but they continued to address the war from within civil rights and black power groups. They were a part of the movement, but highly conscious of retaining a distinct identity within it.11

Beyond the experiences of racial and ethnic groups, Women Strike for Peace, one of the most active antiwar groups, couched their activism in what historian Amy Swerdlow has termed “maternalist” terms. They emphasized acting as women, “in service of others”—their sons at risk of the draft and the children injured in Vietnam. In doing so, they encouraged a more mainstream image of antiwar work, hoping to appeal to any American woman.12

In the American South, antiwar students tried to use southern identity to galvanize others. They encouraged southerners to “secede” from America over the war, hoping to capitalize on positive associations with a rebel image to inspire antiwar work. This tactic did not necessarily work—indeed it alienated many African Americans—but it was yet another attempt to draw on a specific group identity in protesting the war, as well as an example of seeking to transform a cultural value.13

Vietnam veterans would also form an important bloc of protesters, organizing in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). They, too, felt they had a unique perspective and reason for protesting. VVAW became yet another group that was distinct within the movement, yet integral to the cause, providing some of the most compelling testimony against the war.14

Mennonites shared another feature of the antiwar movement: intra-generational conflict. While the stereotype of the 1960s is that campuses were alight with protest this was not always the case. Antiwar student activism often involved a band of dedicated few, facing hostilities from other students and drawing on antiwar faculty for support.15 This was the case for Mennonite campuses where faculty members were often more supportive of student protest than other students. Goshen College professors like J. R. Burkholder, Dan Hess, Dan Leatherman, and Atlee Beechy were integral to antiwar work.16 Professors at EMC also defended students involved in peace vigils, cautioning in the campus newspaper that the Mennonite mentality of “die Stillen im Lande,” or being “the quiet in the land” could lead to terrible atrocities, citing the example of Nazi Germany as a situation when being quiet made ordinary people complicit in government violence.17 These faculty were part of a new interpretation of the peace position, one that questioned obedience to the state and looked for ways to make pacifism active.18 In the meantime, many students still interpreted Mennonite pacifism to preclude protest. In the words of an EMC student, critical of draft card burning in 1965, “. . . Let’s give Uncle Sam his due place in our society…While our citizenship is not in this world, we must serve our nation.”19

In the 1960s Mennonites were reconfiguring pacifism and this does make their story during the Vietnam years unique in some ways. But the ways Mennonites were not unique also matter. When I first took Mennonite expressions of exceptionalism at face value I contributed to two problems: over-simplification of the antiwar movement and romanticization of Mennonite sub-culture.

The story of the 1960s has too often been told as one of movements for social justice that started with the highest ideals, only to come crashing down in a haze of hedonism, violence, and excess by the end of the decade. Historians have been reassessing this narrative for a long time. Moving the spotlight away from students at elite universities, 1960s activism appears more complex, involving many types of people, often lasting well into the 1970s and having a constructive impact on communities. The antiwar movement was more flexible, broad, and diverse than memory has it. Acknowledging this makes the Mennonite story less unique.

Reframing my observations also avoids romanticizing Mennonite sub-culture. American Mennonites are, after all, Americans. In the 1960s they shared many characteristics with other Americans, including support for a war against communism, distrust of the antiwar movement, and susceptibility to negative news media framing of the antiwar movement. There are times to emphasize what is unique about Mennonites, but that should not distract from the ways that Mennonites are shaped by being American.

History is a process of constant revision. Usually this means scholars revise the interpretations of other scholars. But sometimes we need to revise ourselves—and speak more openly about how and why our own interpretations shift.


  1.  Holly Scott, “Doves of a Different Feather: Mennonites and the Antiwar Movement During Vietnam,” (MA thesis, Penn State Harrisburg, 2006). 
  2.  Mel Lehman, “The March, The Ball, The Man,” Weather Vane, January 24, 1969, p. 1 
  3. “The Draft. . .” >The Record, February 23, 1968, p. 4. 
  4. Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 1-2. 
  5. DeBenedetti argues that because the movement was so broad it was able to penetrate almost all aspects of American life, making it a very impactful movement culturally. However, he notes this loose coalition also made it difficult to strategize or clearly assess political gains made. 
  6. Todd Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). Edward Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), makes similar arguments. 
  7. Gitlin, The Whole World is Watching
  8. See Kenneth Heineman Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (New York: New York University Press, 1993) for an examination of the diversity within the movement. See also Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: University Press, 2009), and Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), particularly at 388-415. Gitlin notes the large number of student activists who felt no affinity with increasing radicalization and turn to violence at the end of the decade; indeed he faults the turn to violence in groups like SDS with destroying the antiwar movement. Most members did not want to be part of this turn and thus, losing their institutional home, were cast adrift. 
  9. Lorena Oropeza, ¡Raza Si! Guerra No! Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 
  10. Simon Hall, Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). 
  11. Hall, 1-12, 70-71, 128-129. 
  12. Amy Swerdlow, Women Strike for Peace: Traditional Motherhood and Radical Politics in the 1960s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). 
  13. See Jeffrey Turner, Sitting In and Speaking Out: Student Movements in the American South 1960-1970 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Even the student power approach to antiwar work can be seen as part of the trend to organize from within a set identity. See Robbie Lieberman, ed. Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004). The oral histories she collected demonstrate how antiwar activists at conservative campuses were able to make common cause with students around issues they all agreed on—the need for more student rights. This created what were sometimes strange bedfellows, as activists made alliances with fraternities in working on student rights issues. They hoped sharing an identity as students could help to bring these other students into the larger movement. 
  14.  Richard Stacewicz, ed. Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). See also Jerry Lembck, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam (New York: New York University Press, 1998). 
  15. An excellent treatment of this topic is Heineman, Campus Wars. A similar portrait of campus protest can be found in Lieberman, Prairie Power: Voices of 1960s Midwestern Student Protest and Rebecca Klatch, A Generation Divided: the New Left, the New Right and the 1960s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). Klatch’s work details the way the baby boom generation is significant not only for shaping the New Left but also for providing many of the leaders of a New Right, thus placing intra-generational conflict at the heart of the story of the 1960s. 
  16. Doug Baker, interview by author, October 7, 2006 and Matthew Lind, interview by author, October 2, 2006. Sam Steiner, email to author, December 13, 2006 and J.R. Burkholder, interview by author, September 22, 2006. 
  17. Quote in “Reverberations,” Weather Vane, February 24, 1967, p. 3. See also Grant Stoltzfus, March 4, 1968, Opinion Board 1967-68 and posting by Gerald Brunk, November 2, 1970, Opinion Board 1970-71. These professors voiced support for protest and warned that excessive fears of communism or charges that protest was a threat to law and order at home were misguided at best, potentially dangerous for democracy, at worst. Professor John Lapp also contributed to the discussion, challenging the campus to see student protesters as authentically embodying the Anabaptist nonconformity to the world. See “The Ironies of Change at EMC,” John A. Lapp, posted April 17, 1967, Opinion Board file 1966-67 and “Beyond Irony or Living with Irony?” John A. Lapp, April 19, 1967, Opinion Board 1966-67. All Opinion Board files come from the archives of Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  18. For an examination of changing Mennonite peace theology see Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998) and Leo Driedger and Donald Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). 
  19. “The Draft: Our Worry?” Weather Vane, October 29, 1965, p. 2.